Ten minutes after half-time of their League Cup quarter-final against Manchester City, Arsenal had all their players back deep in their own penalty area. Riyad Mahrez was sizing up a direct free-kick. The Arsenal wall arranged itself six-man strong – five upright, plus Ainsley Maitland-Niles crouching behind the standing sentries in case Mahrez went for the grass-cutter approach.
As they all took guard, Maitland-Niles seemed momentarily confused. Should he lie flat out, extend his full 1.80m along the ground behind the heels of his colleagues, or remain kneeling, ready to spring up if the ball ricocheted loose off their barricade. He looked up at Joe Willock, standing at one extreme of the wall, as if to say, “Should I go any lower?”
Arsenal keep going lower. And lower. The Mahrez free-kick put City 2-1 up on Tuesday, the goal a low point for young goalkeeper Runar Alex Runarsson, drafted in for the Cup game and frail in his handling of Mahrez’s measured strike, which he reached with both palms but merely shovelled it into the net.
City scored two more after that, easing into the semi-finals with a 4-1 victory, and extending Arsenal's run of domestic games without a win to eight.
The pressing question for manager Mikel Arteta is how much lower Arsenal might fall before new year. Into the Premier League relegation zone? Saturday brings Chelsea, fifth in the table, to North London. If the day’s preceding fixture between Fulham and Southampton goes Fulham’s way, then the distance between Arsenal and the relegation zone would cut to two points. Arsenal are 15th, and must travel to 17th-placed Brighton, currently two points beneath them, next Tuesday.
Arteta reached his first anniversary in the job, his first as the main man in charge of any senior team, as he prepared for the visit of City. The first 10 months of his 12 included much to encourage. Arteta collected a major trophy, an FA Cup sealed with impressive displays in the final against Chelsea and the semi-final, when City were overcome 2-0. For weeks later, Arteta’s brave, revived Arsenal beat Liverpool on penalties in the Community Shield.
Four months later, they have won once in 11 domestic fixtures, had a man sent off in three of their last six Premier League games, and taken one point from their last possible 15 in home fixtures.
Their captain and standout goalscorer, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has, since providing Arteta’s last boost of optimism with the only goal of the game at Manchester United on November 1, scored as many goals in the opposition net as own goals. And that’s just a random collection of the many damning statistics that have lowered Arsenal’s position and their morale.
Rather awkwardly, Arteta offered some alternative statistics ahead of the visit by City. Armed with data apparently mined by his club’s analysts, he painted a picture of unusually bad luck. He supplied percentages to back his arguments: the pattern of the match against Burnley, settled by Aubameyang’s own goal, meant, according to the Arteta algorithm, Arsenal were a mere three per cent likely to lose. According to the Arteta calculus, Everton chanced upon what was a nine per cent likelihood of beating Arsenal, as they did 2-1, last weekend.
There are no supporters in Arsenal’s stadium to express scepticism about how far selected data-logic excuses actual results and league position. That may be a blessing. But evidently Arsenal also need rousing from somewhere, and an empty, echoey stadium is an unhelpful backdrop for slovenly home form.
“We are in big trouble,” Arteta acknowledged ahead of Saturday’s derby against a Chelsea emerging from their own recent dip. A 3-0 win against West Ham United, achieved with no great fluency, corrected some of the damage of successive league losses to Wolverhampton Wanderers and Everton. Thiago Silva, with another of his emphatic headers from a set-piece, had opened the scoring.
Thiago, the veteran Brazilian, can catch-up with old friends on Saturday, in his first Arsenal-Chelsea clash. His compatriots David Luiz and Willian have played in 29 of these derbies between them, mostly for Chelsea, from where they moved to Arsenal last year (Luiz) and this year (Willian). And they can confirm to Thiago that, in all their time in London, red or blue, they have never known Arsenal take on Chelsea from so low.